January 19, 2010
By Laurence Cruz
Cisco Systems wants to put a router on every communications satellite.
The networking giant has already sent the first one into space. The company announced today that the router has successfully completed initial in-orbit tests, after being launched Nov. 23 aboard the Intelsat 14 communications satellite into geosynchronous orbit, 22,300 miles above the Earth.
The move is one small step in a bold, new Cisco initiative dubbed Internet Routing in Space (IRIS), which company executives say extends the same Internet protocol-based (IP) technology used to build the World Wide Web into the heavens. The long-term goal, they say, is to route voice, data and video traffic between satellites over a single IP network in ways that are more efficient, flexible and cost effective than is possible over today's fragmented satellite communications networks.
It's an exercise that's sparking intense interest in the satellite industry as well as in the U.S. military, telecommunications companies and other businesses that stand to benefit from the technology. Don Brown of Intelsat General, the world's largest operator of commercial communications satellites, says IRIS is to the future of satellite-based communications what Internet forerunner ARPANET was to the creation of the World Wide Web in the 1960s.
"There is a very strong potential for IRIS to revolutionize communications satellite architecture," says Brown, who is vice president of hosted payloads at the Maryland-based satellite operator. "IP changes everything."
Communications satellites are a type of satellite stationed in space for the purpose of telecommunications, including mobile communications to ships, vehicles and handheld devices. They are also used for TV and radio broadcasting where wires and cables do not reach or are not practical.
Historically, the brains of satellite communications networks have resided largely in ground-based hardware, with the satellite itself passively reflecting the data beamed up to it. But IRIS shifts much more of the intelligence to the orbiting router with potentially dramatic benefits, says Cisco's IRIS general manager Greg Pelton.
For starters, a space-based router can intelligently allocate bandwidth, prioritizing more important traffic and allowing telecommunications companies to respond to changing demand, Pelton says. Hence, if one customer no longer needs bandwidth a broadcaster covering a just-canceled political event, for example that bandwidth can be assigned to another customer such as a government agency dealing with a sudden natural disaster.
Space-based routers would also make it practical for telecommunications companies to offer high-bandwidth, on-demand services such as Cisco TelePresence, Pelton says. That's not an option with existing satellite networks because customers must reserve bandwidth in advance and pay for it whether they use it or not, he says.
Eliminating the "Double Hop"
Other benefits include a better user experience with time-sensitive services such as voice and video, Pelton says. Currently, voice calls or video transmissions routed between two satellite users suffer from delays that hinder interaction; think of those interviews between TV news anchors and reporters in the field that are punctuated with dead silences.
These delays often occur because the data between anchor and reporter must bounce first from one satellite and back, then travel along the ground before bouncing off a second satellite. These two round trips into space, or "hops," total nearly 90,000 miles and add a half-second delay to the signal, Pelton says. IRIS will cut the delay in half by routing the signal directly between the two users and thus eliminating the so-called "double hop," he says.
IRIS also aims to provide "any time, any place" broadband services and to reduce operating expenses for telecommunications companies by merging their terrestrial and space networks, which are currently managed separately, Pelton says. In fact, he says, in addition to offering a multitude of services now lying dormant in the router's operating system software, known as Cisco IOS, IRIS may enable the creation of entirely new capabilities.
"That will be the prize in the crackerjack box we're going to find over the next year," Pelton says.
Changing the Status Quo
The potential opportunity for Cisco in putting a router on every communications satellite is huge. Pelton says about that 100 communications satellites are launched every year, and that the overall satellite market in 2009 was worth $125 billion. Satellite industry executives say it will take years for the company to realize this vision, however, and that IRIS will likely face its share of growing pains along the way.
Some of the challenges, they say, will be technological, such as matching customers' applications with the IRIS system; and some will be economic, such as achieving the economies of scale needed to push down prices for customers. But perhaps the greatest challenge will come from changing the status quo, Pelton says.
"The opportunity to transform an entire industry doesn't come along very often. And the fact that our product isn't delivered on a truck but on a rocket with over a million pounds of thrust is pretty cool, too."
"The satellite industry has been doing things the same way for decades," he says. "Introducing an architectural change and business change can cause a lot of discomfort for our customers and partners."
Analyst John Mazur with international technology consultancy Ovum says IRIS represents the first time Internet technology has been made available from a space-based platform.
"It takes IP ubiquity to a whole new level," Mazur says. "With a few more IRIS birds, IP will be available anywhere, anytime on the planet, although bandwidth may be limited."
Peter Clarke, another Ovum analyst, links IRIS to the surging technology trend of cloud computing. He says companies that have not caught the cloud-computing vision will be baffled by IRIS, while those that have embraced the cloud will readily see the potential of IRIS, which will in turn spur competition.
"It's another pipeline from the cloud down to the user," Clarke says. "It's going to sharpen up the market. It's going to improve services across the board."
Technically, the IRIS router is not the first Cisco has sent into space. In 2003, the company launched an off-the-shelf, commercial router aboard a low Earth orbit satellite, but that experimental effort was never intended to offer services to users, Pelton says.
Not so the IRIS router, which has been modified to withstand the rigors of space. Now that it has completed initial testing, the router will begin two new phases of testing, Cisco says. Starting in February, the U.S. government will evaluate IRIS for three months.
"It's a very cost-effective way for the government to improve its communications capabilities," says Arnold Friedman of Palo Alto, Calif.-based Space Systems/Loral, which built the satellite hosting IRIS. "Especially at this time where budgets are tight, this is a really interesting alternative."
Next, Cisco will spend a year evaluating IRIS for business customers, Pelton says. In doing so, the company hopes to give the satellite industry a chance to get used to IRIS and understand how it can improve their business, he says.
"The opportunity to transform an entire industry doesn't come along very often," Pelton says. "And the fact that our product isn't delivered on a truck but on a rocket with over a million pounds of thrust is pretty cool, too."
Laurence Cruz is a freelance writer in Los Angeles.